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Gorgeous George

7 May
For The Republic by George Scialabba

For The Republic by George

That the flames of ambition have turned to fading embers did not prevent me from attending what will be (ostensibly) my only book party of the year.That the fete was hosted by the inimitable Katherine Powers (whose tome Suitable Accommodations is forthcoming later this summer)was,of course, an encouraging sign. In my past, larger life I was a diligent and ubiquitous attendent of all manner of festivities: commercial, artistic , personal, cultural, callow networking and so on.Now, recognizing the low value of most of those events and having calmed down significantly, I have a preference for remaining within the confines of my somnambulistic zip code. In this instance trekking over to Cambridge for the celebration of George Scailabba’s latest and 4th opus. For the Republic: Political Essays (Pressed Wafer books) balanced out the ordeal of battling traffic as I crossed the Charles River.

The affair turned out to be attended by a lively and congenial gaggle of George’s admirers. Among the illustrious attendees were John Summers, editor of the Baffler; Susan Faludi, a Baffler contributor and well-known social critic; novelists Russ Reimer, Leslie Lawrence, Monica Hileman, and Jane Unrue; George Kovach and Cat Parnell of Consequence Magazine; Lindsay Waters of Harvard University Press; and too many other literary eminences to mention.

For a number of not very good reasons you probably have not heard of George. This is partially explained by Scott McLemee in his 2006 profile:

George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University who has just published a volume of selected pieces under the title Divided Mind, issued by a small press in Boston called Arrowsmith. The publisher does not have a Web site. You cannot, as yet, get Divided Mind through Amazon, though it is said to be available in a few Cambridge bookstores. This may be the future of underground publishing: Small editions, zero publicity, and you have to know the secret password to get a copy. [contact information for Pressed Wafer Press is at the bottom of this page —for anyone inclined to put a check in the mail.*)

When interviewed for his 2009 tome What Are Intellectuals Good For?(Pressed Wafer) George was asked his preference “bad writers who are politically congenial or good writers whose politics he dislikes?”

It’s a complex question,” he says, “leading in all sorts of directions. I’m going to offer a simplified and peremptory answer. Better good writers with bad politics than bad writers with good politics. The former teach us how to think (and feel and imagine); the latter merely what to think. Knowing how to think is incomparably more important. Unless most people know how to think, there can’t be genuine democracy.”

In 2012 with the publication of his (then)most recent collection of essays, The Modern Predicament(Pressed Wafer), here’s his answer to the query,” What, in brief, is the modern predicament? Which authors, and what lived experience in history, most shaped your understanding of it?”:

Modernity is the ensemble of changes – intellectual, political, economic, social, cultural, technological, aesthetic – that have altered the world drastically since roughly the 17th century, until which time the world was, in the above respects, far less different from the world of any previous epoch of recorded history than it is from the world of today. The modern predicament is the set of problems these changes have bequeathed us.

One problem is our loss of ontological, social, and psychological embeddedness. Formerly, the meaning and purposes of life were, to a far greater extent, simply given for most people by the religious, family, and societal structures in which they were born and grew up. Very few people, and even those people to a limited extent, were expected or encouraged to become individuals, free to make fundamental choices about love, religion, occupation, political allegiance, even location. Only a tiny elite could aspire to an individual identity and an individual history.

Nowadays everyone, or at least most people in the rich countries – I realize that this still leaves out most of humankind – can be an individual. But that turns out to be difficult. Over millions of years, we evolved characters and psyches that needed to be held in and held up by intense bonds, usually provided by strong families and local communities. For many reasons – economic development, geographical mobility, religious tolerance, the rise of nation-states, the emancipation of women – those bonds have weakened over the last few centuries. The resulting freedom obviously has enormous benefits for the previously unindividuated. But for many people it also has costs: isolation, loneliness, purposelessness, powerlessness, and hyperstimulation.

The modern predicament, then, is the difficulty of finding a sane, harmonious balance among all the vast and various consequences of science, technology, democracy, mass literacy, feminism, and the other forms of modern progress.

My own involvement with these questions began in college, when the devout Catholicism in which I was brought up – I was actually a member of the traditionalist religious order Opus Dei – met and was vanquished by the 18th- and 19th-century secular critique of religion. For some years after that I was not only a passionate anti-clericalist and philosophical materialist (as I still am), but also a fervent believer in progress as a fairly linear process, a smooth upward slope in which all that was necessary was to complete the long march through all the orthodoxies, religious, political, and sexual, which the Enlightenment had begun.

Then, in my thirties, I encountered the two most important (for me) critics of modernity, D.H. Lawrence and Christopher Lasch. Lawrence was a kind of Hebrew prophet, not of righteousness but of the body, and against what he perceived (at least in early-20th-century-England) as a disastrous over-valuing of the mental, the conceptual, the explicit – what used to be called, roughly from Kant to G.E. Moore, the Ideal. He was a pagan, reasserting the importance of all the wisdom that had been forgotten in the course of the (necessary) rejection of traditional religion and metaphysics. He was also the finest prose stylist I had ever encountered, so I was (and still am) blown away. His essays, collected in the two volumes of Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers are one of the great neglected resources of European culture. I try to say why in the essay “Shipwrecked” in The Modern Predicament.

Lawrence was a bit archaic and exotic; Christopher Lasch was as American as apple pie or Walt Whitman. With different materials and a completely different intellectual and verbal style from Lawrence, he made a subtly parallel argument about the forgotten wisdom of pre-modernity, in particular of the producerist, or yeoman, or civic republican tradition. I’ve written about him at length in both What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern Predicament, but I’m still coming to terms with him.

Morten Høi Jensen has an accurate, succinct take on George Scialabba

… Scialabba’s eloquent prose and boundless literary-intellectual reserves shrug off these claims to redundancy. He is a natural heir to the critics whose lives, works, and careers he explicated so sympathetically in What Are Intellectuals Good For?: Dwight Macdonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, Lionel Trilling, Randolph Bourne, Irving Howe. He is a counterargument to his own claims about generalists. Reading George Scialabba emphasizes the need for more George Scialabbas.

For the Republic is divided into 4 sections: Theories, Thinkers, Plutocratic Vistas and Rant which include ruminations on a wide array of sages and savants—IF STone, Gore Vidal.the Christophers(Lasch and Hitchens),Tony Judt, Thomas Friedman, Edmund Wilson, George Orwell,Victor Serge and Ed Hirsch.In his Introduction to For the Republic Rutgers History mentor Jackson Lears concludes:

But if the forces of inevitability triumph (as their prophets claim they inevitably will), it will not be George Scialabba’s fault. Through the dark decades of Reaganism and neoliberalism, he helped us sort through the portentous trivia and see (against all odds) what really matters…One is reminded of William James, who (according to John Jay Chapman)always seemed as if “he stepped out this sadness in order to meet you.” Sometimes even everyday acts require a quiet heroism. We can only be grateful that Scialabba, like James, has continued to summon it.

George Scialabba (photo: Robert Birnbaum

George Scialabba (photo: Robert Birnbaum

*McClemee writes “the publisher seems to be avoiding crass commercialism (not to mention convenience to the reader) by keeping Divided Mind out of the usual online bookselling venues. You can order it from the address below for $13, however. That price includes shipping and handling:Arrowsmith, 11 Chestnut Street, Medford, MA 02155”
And For the Republic can be gotten at Harvard Bookstore or from Pressed Wafer, 375 Parkside Ave, Brooklyn NY 11226. Or from Amazon.

Currently reading Snapper by Brian Kimberling (Pantheon)

Things You Didn’t Know

18 Feb

I’m going to risk looking foolish with the perilous assertion that there are some things you don’t know (which are worth knowing)that I know. Ah, but then what is a well-lived life that does not jeopardize one’s hard acquired and cherished coin of credence?

Untitled (Girl Covered in Grass) Ezven Sobek

Untitled (Girl Covered in Grass) Ezven Sobek

Untitled (Men with Guns) by Ezven Sobek

Untitled (Men with Guns) by Ezven Sobek

It’s probable that you are unaware of writer Brian Doyle—ensconced some distance from major centers of ambition, Doyle besides occupying his daylight hours as the editor of Portland Magazine has authored over a dozen books—of which Mink River (Oregon University Press), his most recent novel and Bin Laden’s Bald Spot (Red Hen Press). Doyle has taken up weekly residence at The American Scholar’s website. Introducing himself, Doyle asserts

He’s riveted by the way people tell and speak and sing their stories, and he thinks that often the very best pieces of writing are the ones where the writer leaps out of the way of a story as it passes from teller to listener.s riveted by the way people tell and speak and sing their stories, and he thinks that often the very best pieces of writing are the ones where the writer leaps out of the way of a story as it passes from teller to listener.

Bin Laden's Bald Spot by Brian Doyle

Bin Laden’s Bald Spot by Brian Doyle

Twenty-two year old Jennifer Lawrence already has a substantial body of work and is currently riding a wave of adulation for her performance in what I find to be an Oscar nominated undistinguished film. Among other projects for which she has been reportedly slated is the lead in Serena, the movie being made from Ron Rash’s best selling novel. Prior to her Hunger Games celebrity,Lawrence appeared in a number of small films, The Burning Plain, the heart rending Like Crazy and her bravura performance in Winter’s Bone with the protean Mr John Hawkes—a film that may contain the best performance of her life.

Did you know that Pittsburgh is the 4th most literate city in the USA?

I recently noticed an auto commercial where the salesman has a dog as a prospective buyer and, of course, is hustling the hound to make a sale. I don’t where in the arc of a trend this falls but apparently Subaru has been working this theme diligently having created an octet of advertisements linking dogs and autos. And if that isn’t sufficiently cute, British photographer Martin Usborne hasa new monograph The Silence of Dogs in Cars(Kehrer Verlag),Uzburn opines, “that the project is, sort of a metaphor for how we silence animals in our lives, including, our own animal natures.”

Shep by Martin Uzborne

Shep by Martin Uzborne

Speaking of the superlative and inimitable John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, The Sessions), I recently discovered him in Miranda July’s first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, a charming narrative, whose subplots dovetail in resolving themselves in pleasantly surprising ways

The real world tournament, World Baseball Classic, begins its Second Round (Modified Double Elimination) in Tokyo and Miami March 8 through the March 16 culminating in the Championship round single elimination) in San Francisco beginning March 16. The competition includes the usual baseball playing nations and Italy, the Netherlands,Spain,Israel and theCzech Republic.

Talk about arcane knowledge I chanced to read an article described a new product filling in a burgeoning niche in the American marketplace—Wisk Deep Clean a solution to the growing invisible stain crisis.

From a faux documentary about invisible stains

From a faux documentary about invisible stains

Currently reading Benediction by Kent Harouf (Knopf)

Cultural Hodge Podge

14 Jul

In case anyone cares what I think about a small buffet of topics, here:


The newest issue of the Baffler has hit my mailbox. one of the new issue’s features, Thomas Frank’s “Dead End on Shakin’ Street”is available on line.

If you are familiar with the term “must reading’, it applies to the Baffler

David Simon, renowned for creating the Wire, the best 5 season series in the history of the world has a web presence entitled, The Audacity of Despair takes on the Drug War. On which he eloquently and sensibly shines a super-trooper. I especially liked this:

…We can’t even keep drugs out of our vast prison complex, much less a junior high school; if we can’t win the drug war inside a maximum-security prison, where in society do we expect to emerge victorious?

It was pleasant to discover that something excellent was hiding in plain sight from me. In case satirist Louis CK has escaped your attention(as he had mine) there is an substantial archive of his Fx shows accessible. Here is a, uh, provocative segment with the great Melissa Leo

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La PAVA

I am not exactly sure what I am reading in Sergio De La Pava’s singular novel The Naked Singularity (The University of Chicago Press)but I haven’t been able to put it down.Here’s the author’s synopsis:

A novel where in Casi, a young NYC public defender and son of Colombian immigrants, will suffer his first loss at trial then seek to reduce the sting of that defeat by using inside information to meticulously plan and execute a heist of illicit millions. Where said actions will not only come to the attention of a persistent police detective but also unleash a menacing giant bent on violent revenge; two pursuers Casi must then outrace while navigating a world expanded by theoretical physics to encompass the rise and fall of boxer Wilfred Benitez, Alabama’s death row, psych experiments involving Ralph Kramden, and enough comedic energy to power the stars.

And you can read an excerpt here

I have great difficulty processing the immensity of the failure of a gaggle of Penn State officials to do the obviously right thing. The banality of the notion of the banality of evil come to mind —which is to say these were not monsters (excepting Sandusky) and their callousness toward the victims and the displaced loyalty displayed toward their beloved alma mater is consciousness boggling. Lauren Kelley at Alternet zeroes in on three important considerations in reviewing the Penn State Sex Abuse Report.

I spent Friday afternoon watching the first 4 episodes of the new Aaron Sorkin HBO seriesThe Newsroom On a visceral level, I found the show appealing and watchable and the only element of discord was the sappy main theme by Thomas Newman (which sounde like sappy Aaron Copland). The casting was excellent, the dialogue crisp and smart and the soliloquies stirring and aspirational. On a minor note— its fun to watch Sam Waterson playing for laughs. Having a fictitious news organization take on the BP oil spill, the Arizona anti Mexican bill, the shooting of Congresswoman Gifford and rabid American jingoism strikes me as a worthy project and though the restoration of news reporting to the nightly news is clearly a quixotic notion, adding the Newsroom to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert madcap reportage may suggest to some outlying news venue that what is old may once again be new.

Anyway, I saw some very unkind reactions on Facebook from a number of media elitists before I was able to screen The Newroom. I am glad that didn’t put me off from watching and I look forward to watching the series play itself out and reading intelligent exegesis and commentary that it engenders.

Currently reading The Baffler Issue # 20

A Beautiful Mind

18 Apr

Of the three people I have admired, perhaps inordinately, as an adult, two are still living— Cynthia Ozick and Eduardo Galeano (Howard Zinn, as you probably know, has passed away). This outsized admiration takes the form of serious devotion to their work and activities.

Eduardo Galeano with Robert Birnbaum's hound, Rosie

Uruguayan Galeano has published a panegyric to Montivideo the capital of his native land at the Daily Beast:

Every day I walk the city that walks me.

I walk through her and she walks through me.

At the edge of the river-sea, river as broad as the sea, the clear air clears my mind and my legs stride on while stories walk inside me.

Walking, I write. At a stroll, words seek each other and find each other and weave stories that later on I write by hand on paper. Those pages are never the final ones. I cross out and crumple up, crumple and cross in search of the words that deserve to exist: fleeting words that yearn to outdo silence.

Born on the path of a cannonball, Montevideo is swept by breezes that cleanse the air. Before there was a church or a hospital, this point of rock, earth, and sand had a café. It was called a pulpería, the first house with a wooden door amid the huts of mud and straw. They sold everything there, from a needle and a frying pan to a pack of tobacco, while men sitting on the floor drank wine and told lies.

Practically three centuries later Montevideo is still a city of cafés.

The poem continues here

Devotees of Eduardo Galeano can look forward to the publication of his forthcoming book Children Born of the Days.

Currently reading The Wet Engine by Brian Doyle (Oregon State University Press)

Good Sports

27 Jan

Apparently, sports writing is the bastard child of journalism except when blowhards like George Will take their lifeless and desiccated prose to bloviating about baseball—which, by the way, seems to be the sport writers most like to indulge their wordsmithing. A few writers enjoy the sweet science of boxing (Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Gay Talese,Pete Hamill*) and, of course, David Foster Wallace’s 2006 piece on Roger Federer apparently already stands as a classic piece of sports literature.

Anyway, I got to thinking about this matter for a couple of random reasons. One, I recently discovered Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame writer Bill Conlin (shortly before he was disgraced by allegations of long ago, sexually abusing his nephews and nieces). He had written an especially flattering piece on Bobby Valentine and at the same time taking some shots at out going Red Sox manager Terry Francona (whip had previously managed the Phillies. I got to corresponding with Conlin whose writing I approached with the same eagerness I had for the late great George Kimball and Bob Ryan when he was writing on Roundball. Bill Conlin’s columns (if you can overcome the conflict) are still available (and not to make to fine a point about the repercussions of disgrace, his photo is still up at the Baseball Hall of Fame)

Now there are still a (very) few writers out there regularly covering sports whom I actively seek out. Dave Zifrin (The People’s History of Sports), not a particulaRLY outstanding stylist writes sports for the NATION (which may be akin to covering football for Women’s Wear Daily) and distinguishes himself by recognizing that sport is not separate from politics

Michael Rosenberg,at Sports Illustrated, has occasionally grabbed my attention and if he keeps writing pieces such as his assessment of David Stern and his stewardship of the NBA, I will look for him more often;

The best franchises find ways to manage their stars’ egos and complement their talents. The worst ones stand on false principles and turn their teams into a dysfunctional mess. We now know why David Stern has stood by so many lousy owners over the years: He is one.

Secondly, the McSweeney’s cadre entered the sports world with Grantland
edited by ESPN’s Basketball guy, Bill Simmons (The Basketball Book). There is lots of fine writing (and images) noteworthy for an iconoclastic tone and solid grasp of the sports being written about. All this by familiar writers(Tom Bissell Colson Whitehead, Chuck Klosterman, Malcom Gladwell and Jane Leavey). What grabbed me immediately in the debut volume Grantland Quarterly was the Boston Globe’s movie critic Wesley Morris’The Rise of the NBA Nerd Basketball style and black identitywhich I commend to your attention.Here’s a snatch from it:

…”Nerd” is a kind of drag in which ballers are liberated to pretend to be someone else.

When David Stern imposed the league’s reductive dress code six years ago, all this role-playing, reinvention, and experimentation didn’t seem a likely outcome. We all feared Today’s Man. But the players — and the stylists — were being challenged to think creatively about dismantling Stern’s black-male stereotyping. The upside of all this intentionality is that these guys are trying stuff out to see what works. Which can be exciting. No sport has undergone such a radical shift of self-expression and self-understanding, wearing the clothes of both the boys it once mocked and the men it desires to be.

I was lucky enough to have worked briefly in the same place (The Boston Phoenix) as George Kimball and that proximity acquainted me with his persona and his nonpareil work.Alex Belth has a wonderful tribute piece on Kimball. Here he explains why he put together At The Fights:

“It was as if I woke up one morning and realized that however good or bad it might have been, well over 95 percent of what I’d written in my life had been used to wrap fish,” George told me. “If I wanted to leave something more permanent, write things I’d always planned to write, and leave a worthwhile body of work behind, I needed to get off my ass and do it.”

*At The Fights Kimball & John Schulian (Library of America)

A Feast Day of Prose

15 Dec

Will power is not one of my strong suits. Else when certain books cross my threshold I would place in their appropriate ranking in th ego-be-read cue. Certain books by the likesof Elmore Leonard.George Pelecanos, Thomas Perry, Micheal Connelly and Michael Gruber. In the case at hand I found James Lee Burke’s new opus Feast Day of Fools (Simon & Schuster) in my hands and soon thereafter found myself joyfully turning the pages of Burke’s 30th book. I do have reservations —as I do about Connelly —as both have succumbed to the seduction of writing series around a specific character. Like Connelly, James Lee’s stories are not hampered what is an obvious crutch for lesser writers;

It did not take me long to find passages to marvel at and reread for their piquancy; As in:

The sheriff had arrived at an age when he no longer speculated on validity of a mad man’s visions , or in general, the foibles of human behavior. Instead, his greatest fear was his fellow man’s propensity to act collectively, in militaristic lock step, under the banner of God and country. Mobs did not rush across town to do good deeds, and in Hackelberry’s view, there was no more odious taint on any social or political endeavor then universal approval.

Or this gem:

Often he wondered, as an anthropologist might, what the historical environment of the human race actually was. It wasn’t a subdivision of sprinkled lawns and three bed room houses inside of which the television set had become the cool fire of modern man, Could it the the vast sun baked plain broken by mesas and parched riverbeds where the simian and the mud slathered and unredeemed hunted one another with sharpened sticks, where the only mercy meted out was the kind that came as a result of satiation and exhaustion…the compulsion to kill was in the gene pool…those who denied it were the same ones who killed through proxy. Every professional executioner , every soldier, knew that one of his chief duties was to protect those he served from knowledge about themselves…

And this rumination:

Hackberry Holland had come to believe that age was a separate country you did not ry to explain to younger people, primarily because they had already made up their minds about it and any lessons you had learned from your life were the kind that many people were interested in hearing about.If age brought gifts he didn’t know what they were…

And I’m only about 40 pages into it.

Currently reading Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke (SAinon and Schuster

Valentines for Valentine

5 Dec

Despite many good reasons for reducing my attention to sports to a minimum, apparently the damage has already been done and I (for the unforeseeable future) will continue to follow baseball in all its many shapes and forms—the majors, college and highs school, Caribbean and, of course, my son Pudge’s(Cuba) career. Though to the tell the truth, I find watching my son play ball to be the most satisfying entertainment.

Cuba "Pudge" Birnbaum Copy right 2011 Robert Birnbaum

Now one of the telling symptoms of the sports disease is (besides the obvious one of attending football games in December, bare chested and painted in team colors) is reading about sports—both the contests and the attendant gossip. In Boston , which undeservedly purports to have a superior coterie of sports commentators (I am at a loss to think of any who qualifies after the redoubtable George Kimball and the pre TV pundit Bob Ryan) I have found a bland collection — ranging from nasty to suck up sports media. For example, if as it is now claimed, the Red Sox were a rudderless dinghy moving into playoff crunch time, why did we only learn of this state of affairs after Tito Franco was unceremoniously (and nastily) trashed at the end of the regular season? The beat guys are were either sucking up the brewskis and chicken wings in the press room, or as I think is more the case afraid of alienating the Lords of Red Sox Nation(the only writer in Boston who dared to poke fun at John Henry and the construction of his $40 million Brookline San Simeon was the Globe’s Alex Beam)

Anyway , the recent hiring of Bobby Valentine as the next ex manager of the Los Sox Rojos found me searching for creditable commentary on Bobby V and his enthronement. Which I found by Philadelphia’s Bill Conlin:

MY FUNNY Valentine” is one of the great standards of our rich popular-music culture. The timeless Rodgers and Hart classic has been performed by every major artist, vocally by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Eckstine – even actress Michelle Pfeiffer crooned it in “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” But its real staying power and endless musical possibilities have been interpreted by just about every jazz great from boppers Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan to smooth-jazz star Chris Botti . . .

“My Funny Valentine” ceased to be funny to the rest of the American League East yesterday when the Boston Red Sox segued from the final dysfunctional season of unfocused manager Terry Francona to the brilliant baseball mind and firm hand of Bobby Valentine…

Pudge Birnbaum Copyright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

In fact,I was so enchanted by Conlin’s prose style and non sports references that I went in search of other of his scribblings.
His column mocking claims by various people about what they would have done in the (alleged) Sandusky shower episode also included a riotous censure of Penn State apparatchiks that did not disappoint:

…Could the Trustees’ handling and timing of the firings have been botched more badly? I’m surprised they didn’t pull up to the Paterno home in a stretch limo with opaqued windows and hand him a blindfold and cigarette. But these guys didn’t even have the guts to whack him in person. Instead, they sent a messenger to deliver a note with a phone number on it for Paterno to call, then two Trustees informing, “You are relieved of your duties.” Maybe they feared a college football Libya, with Paterno, surrounded by loyalists, refusing to surrender the football palace

Conlin(to his credit) makes mention of the infamous Kitty Genovese case( in which allegedly 38 bystanders viewed Ms Genovese being stabbed to death and did nothing.)although the facts of that incident have been distorted in the various retellings.

So, if like me you still read about sports (about as silly as reading about dance, unless its Arlene Croce), Bill Conlin is worth a gander and more

Pudge Copyright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

Currently reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (Everyman Library)

By George

1 Dec

I am not inclined to read book reviews —in large part because American media venues have so degraded the enterprise that I have found very little to be learned by attending to what seems to pass for literary criticism (except maybe the airing of various grudges and petty jealousies). Occasionally I do find something worth reading, as in the recent New Yorker publication of Martin Amis’s enthusiastic appraisal of Don Delillo and his recent (and first) story collection.

Now I have stumbled across (well okay I have Katherine Powers to thank for pointing the way) a superb survey of Christopher Hitchens by the inestimable George Scialabba. Hitchens, a thinker to be reckoned with is in excellent hands—clearly Mr.Scialabba is familiar with both Hitchen’s literary efforts( a prodigious oeuvre) and his evolving politics as well as maintaining an even handed view of Hitch as a public figure. The essay ends quoting William Hazlitt on Edmund Burke:

Burke was an acute and accomplished man of letters—an ingenious political essayist. … He had the power of throwing true or false weights into the scales of political casuistry, but not firmness of mind enough (or shall we say, honesty enough) to hold the balance. When he took a side, his vanity or his spleen more frequently gave the casting vote than his judgment; and the fieriness of his zeal was in exact proportion to the levity of his understanding, and the want of conscious sincerity.

To which Scialabba appends, “Whether or not one finds this true of Burke, it is Hitchens to the life.

By the way,The Modern Predicament (Pressed Wafer)

George Scialabba copyright 2011 George Scialabba

George’s (if I may be so familiar) new opus is one of the subjects I hope to take up in conversation with the author in the coming year or in the fullness of time.

Here’a an insightful snapshot of George Scialabba by Scot McLemme

… it is about time someone brought out a collection of Scialabba’s work. That it’s only happening now (15 years after the National Book Critics Circle gave him its first award for excellence in reviewing) is a sign that things are not quite right in the world of belles lettres. He writes in what William Hazlitt — the patron saint of generalist essayists — called the “the familiar style,” and he is sometimes disarmingly explicit about the difficulties, even the pain, he experiences in trying to resolve cultural contradictions. That is no way to create the aura of mystery and mastery so crucial for awesome intellectual authority.

Currently reading Bloodland by Alan Glynn (Picador)

The Best List of 2011

23 Nov

Russell Banks Copright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

As you are being besieged by the predictable onslaught of seasonal and year-end commercial and media gestures, rest assured that my list is no mere journalistic contrivance but more in the spirit of Umberto Eco’s catalogue of civilization. There is, of course, no such thing as a best list but employing such a fiction to get your attention seems reasonable to me. No?

Anyway, in no particular order:

Luminarium-Alex Shakar(Soho)
Men in the Making– Bruce Machart(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Sisters Brothers– Patrick Dewitt (Ecco)
The Barbarian Nurseries -Hector Tobar (FSG)
Doc– Mary Doria Russell (Random House)
Remembering Ben Clayton -Steve Harrigan (knopf)
Galore– Michael Crummey(Other Press)
The Lost Memory of SkinRussell Banks (Ecco)
Love and Shame and Love-Peter Ormer (Little Brown)
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self-Danielle Evans (Riverhead)
To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal (Little Brown)
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente -Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics)
Bin Laden’s Bald Spot-Brian Doyle (Red Hen Press)
You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard (Knopf)
Broken Irish-Edward Delaney (Turtle Point Press)
Once the River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (WW Norton)
Rules of Civility-Amor Towles(Viking)
Chango’s Beads and Two Toned Shoes-William Kennedy (Viking)
Conquistadora– Esmeralda Santiago (Knopf)
The CutGeorge Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur)

The Wasteland

22 Nov

While never hopeful about the offerings on network television occasionally even this degraded media manages to provide some relief from the tedious fashions of real housewives, forensic crime,vampires and gossip. Recently Justified and Terriers were examples of the possibility of interesting and well executed narratives.

This season’s exemplar is Prime Suspect, an obvious derivative of the successful Helen Mirren/BBC detective series. And if you count BBC America’s The Hour and Luther there has been a relative overabundance of watchable stories.Prime Suspect’s US version brings us the arresting visage of Maria Bello as a NYPD detective who has been assigned to a new precinct where she struggles to overcome the inbred machismo of her new colleagues as well as their belief that she earned her new slot unfairly.

Reportedy Prime Suspect is close to being canceled thus reducing this season’s watchable television down to Law and Order reruns (The BBC America shows had 6 and 4 episodes runs) Maria Bello explains the character she plays and her belief in this story.